(Oct. 30, 2019) On October 11, 2019, the Conseil constitutionnel (Constitutional Council, France’s constitutional court) ruled that public higher education should remain affordable for all, including students from outside the European Union (EU).
This ruling stems from a decision by the French government to increase fees paid by students from outside the EU. Under the new fee schedule, students from outside the EU would pay €2,770 (about US$3,090) per year for a licence program (the French licence is roughly the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree), while students from within the EU would pay only €170 (about US$190) per year. For a master’s degree, students from outside the EU would pay €3,770 (about US$4,210) per year, while EU students would pay €243 (about US$271) per year. This decision was part of a larger government plan to improve the attractiveness of French universities to international students—a plan that includes measures to streamline France’s student visa process and improve international students’ experience when they arrive, as well as up to €15 million (about US$16.7 million) in related spending. However, this increase in university fees was widely criticized for its potential impact on poorer students. In particular, it was feared that this measure would negatively impact students from Africa, who make up close to half of all international students in France.
The fee increase was challenged by several student unions and other student groups before the Conseil d’Etat (Council of State), which is France’s highest jurisdiction for issues of administrative law. The Conseil d’Etat, in turn, asked the Conseil constitutionnel to rule on the constitutionality of the procedure by which the fee increase was decided. The Conseil constitutionnel ruled that this procedure was indeed constitutional. But the Conseil constitutionnel also declared that the constitutional requirement for tuition-free public education also applies to higher education.
The Preamble of the Constitution of 1946, which is incorporated by reference in the Constitution of 1958 (France’s current constitution), guarantees “equal access of children and adults to education, professional training, and culture,” and specifies that “the establishment of free and secular public education at all levels is a duty of the State.” While the principle of tuition-free education has long been accepted as applying to primary and secondary education, this appears to be the first time that a French high court has explicitly extended it to higher education.
The Conseil constitutionnel specified that the principle of free education, as applied to higher education, did not prohibit the government from setting “modest” registration fees, so long as the financial means of students were taken into account. However, the Court did not elaborate on how to define “modest” registration fees. This question will be argued by both sides before the Conseil d’Etat: the petitioners challenging the new fees will point out that they are anything but modest, especially for poorer students, while the government will respond that, even after this fee increase, the state still pays for two-thirds of the education costs for students from outside the EU.
Updated November 18, 2019